A Man Of Words, Not Of Deeds

Alexis de Tocqueville: a mediocre minister but a memoirist of genius

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Alexis de Tocqueville, caricatured by Honoré Daumier in 1849

Ernest Hemingway famously said of Scott Fitzgerald that he wrote two very good books and “one which was not completed which those who know his writings best say would have been very good”. The same might be said of Alexis de Tocqueville. Hardly anyone would deny the status of both Democracy in America and the later The Old Regime and the Revolution as classics of political literature and analysis but few would readily accord the same distinction to Tocqueville’s posthumously published Recollections. But here, in a text that Tocqueville never quite finished and that he wrote not for “public viewing” but for his own satisfaction, is what some might regard as Tocqueville’s third masterpiece.

Tocqueville spent the early 1840s as something of an underperforming politician in the July Monarchy of King Louis-Philippe. Always a poor public speaker, he never quite made the grade. But by January 1848 he had come to understand that the Orleanist regime was in deep trouble. As he told his parliamentary colleagues, they were lulling themselves to sleep on an active volcano.

So when, a month later, the February Revolution burst forth and Louis-Philippe as plain Mr Smith went into exile in England, Tocqueville knew exactly where he stood. There was no chance of preserving or restoring the monarchy. The newly-proclaimed Republic had to be built upon sound constitutional and liberal principles. And this meant that the Republic had to be protected from the wilder excesses of socialism.

To that end, Tocqueville did his best to ensure that France would adopt a constitution that copied as closely as possible that of his beloved stable and prosperous America; in parliamentary debates he denounced calls for a recognition of the right to work, defending private property to the hilt; with a rifle on his back, he enthusiastically endorsed the brutal repression of the popular insurrection in June 1848 prompted by the closure of Louis Blanc’s National Workshops. For five months in 1849 Tocqueville also served as minister of foreign affairs.

It was when this last sorry episode — Tocqueville, with considerable ineptitude, oversaw a breach of diplomatic relations with the United States — was brought unceremoniously to an end that, already in ill-health, he retired to his country estate in Normandy and began to reflect on these bitter experiences. Parts of what became the Recollections were subsequently written in Sorrento over the winter of 1850-51 and then, upon his return to France, in Versailles as the threat of a coup d’état by Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte became ever more real. A first (imperfect) edition was published by Tocqueville’s grandnephew only in 1893.

Edited by Olivier Zunz and flawlessly translated by Arthur Goldhammer, Tocqueville’s Recollections is now available in a nicely illustrated new edition. However, in addition to the text itself and its various appendices, Zunz has added just short of a hundred pages of correspondence, speeches and occasional writings penned or delivered by Tocqueville in the period stretching from the birth of the Second Republic until its overthrow in December 1851. These welcome additions allow us not only to assess Tocqueville’s political interventions but also to observe his shift in mood from relative optimism to profound pessimism. Tocqueville’s letters (to men such as Nassau Senior and Arthur de Gobineau, and also to his wife) are candid, elegant and always thoughtful.

For all its incisive commentary and biting portraits of his contemporaries, much of the Recollections reads as an exercise in self-justification. If only his advice had been followed, the Republic would have survived. Yet, when in solitude Tocqueville looked at himself as “in a mirror”, he could not hide his own failings. He knew that he had misjudged the political forces of his day. He accepted that his own recommendations for a new constitution made the ignominious fall into Bonapartist dictatorship almost inevitable. He knew that his achievements as foreign Mmnister were mediocre at best. To his friend Louis Kergorlay, he confided: “I am better in thought than in action.”

Yet, above all, Tocqueville wanted to understand his times and the men who had shaped it. What he saw was a government that resembled the joint stock company of a degraded bourgeoisie; a king whose limited mind and lack of elevation personified the defects of his age; everywhere “a spirit of deception, baseness, and corruption”; men chosen for office precisely because of their mediocrity; an emperor who was a monomaniac, audacious to the point of folly; workers led astray by the fantastical and materialistic doctrines of socialist ideologues. More than this, Tocqueville saw that nowhere was there to be found a firm attachment to the principles and habits of liberty. And so France was condemned to lurch from one despotic regime to another, never able to escape from its centuries-old practices of centralisation. “It is terrifying and depressing to see,”  Tocqueville wrote, “how many seeds of liberty have been so miserably wasted, trampled underfoot, and destroyed over the past three years.”

France was a country cast out on stormy seas with no port in sight, a country, in Tocqueville’s estimation, unworthy of being free. Her illnesses were chronic and enduring. For a man, as Tocqueville described himself, who had no traditions and no party and who had no cause other than that of freedom and human dignity, it was all but impossible not to feel a stranger in his own land. What else could he do but retire from public life and remain, as he explained to his dearest friend, Gustave de Beaumont, not in neutral, but “in reserve”, waiting in hope that his time might come? “There is,” he continued, “only one goal I can stick with no matter what: to fight for the triumph of our freedoms when this crisis is over or go down with them. Everything else is secondary, but this is a question of life and death.”